This post is inspired by a chat I recently had with someone who is moving from Ireland to Korea next month, about what’s available in Korea and what she should bring from home.
Unfortunately she was just as confused as I was when I was preparing to come to Korea, because there is so much conflicting information online. I would hate for anyone to spend a fortune on excess baggage charges to bring over load of stuff you can get easily and cheaply in Korea. That’s why I decided to make this little guide (and also because I’m desk-warming* and very bored).
I’ve put each item in bold letters so if you don’t want to read the whole thing you should easily be able to scan through and find information on the things you’re most curious about. I’ve also included some shopping links and resources that I’ve found useful.
1. Clothing and footwear
This is an area a lot of people have concerns about, especially those who are a little bigger or taller.
I’m not really in a position to comment about men’s clothes, but I would estimate that if you wear above a size large or are very tall, you should bring plenty of clothes from home. Focus on bringing things that don’t have a lot of give, like trousers, shirts and jackets. Hoodies and t-shirts should be less of a problem for the bigger-boned gentleman to find.
Now, on women’s clothes. A lot of the style in Korea is what you might call ‘frumpy chic’, so there are plenty of loose tops and dresses that can accommodate many body types. Just tuck your top into your skirt or throw a belt around your dress if you don’t want to look like a house. However, if you’re above a UK size 14 and you prefer fitted clothes to loose ones, Korean shops will be a pain in the ass and you should take plenty of clothes from home. It’s also important to note that if you wear bras over a C cup, you won’t find any sufficient over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders in Korea. Again, stock up before you come.
If you’re into your high-street brands, in Busan there is H&M and Zara but not a whole lot else. Both are also a bit more expensive than back home. You will find many more international brands, as well as clothes for bigger people, in Seoul, and in particular the Itaewon area. Make sure to also look out for Uniclo, a Japanese brand that is everywhere in Korea and very popular among foreigners.
- The big international clothing brands can be found in the shopping streets and the more upmarket shopping centres. This is H&M in Seomyeon, Busan. It’s exactly like H&M back home, but with more Koreans.
As for shoes, if you’re a woman who takes a UK size 6 or under, or a man who takes a 10 or under, the glorious and often amusing world of Korean shoe shops is yours to enjoy. However if your feet are bigger than that you should definitely bring some shoes along or else prepare for a few Itaewon trips. Don’t just bring your ‘good shoes’ and runners – you will most definitely also need a pair to wear in work. These are indoor shoes but I wouldn’t go as far as to call them slippers. Most of my colleagues wear some kind of sandals with socks, which is definitely not uncool in Korea (indoors at least). I just wear a pair of light ballerina flats.
- If you’re lucky enough to fit into Korean clothes and shoes, the cheapest (and often the wackiest) can be found in the markets and underground shopping streets. This is the underground market in Seomyeon, Busan.
Some sources claim that it’s very difficult to find woolen socks and socks that go over the ankle in Korea. Codswallop! You will see plenty of the trainer liner variety (the kind that stop just before the ankle), but all the other types are also available. I absolutely love Korean socks. They start at 1,000W (about 75c) per pair and come in all kinds of snazzy designs. So don’t bring too many socks to Korea and allow yourself to become a sock-o-holic during your time here.
- Tell the scare mongers to put a sock in it. Korea is big on socks, to the extent that stalls selling socks are everywhere (top left). In additions, sockmobiles (my word) traverse the land to make sure citizens don’t have to go all the way into town for a new pair of socks (bottom right).
- I heard you like socks so I got you some some socks with some socks on them
Finally, Korean clothing and shoe sizes are a bit bamboozling at first, but thankfully Seoulistic have this handy guide.
2. Food, glorious food
For the most part I have been very pleasantly surprised at the range of familiar food available in Korea. Though I probably shouldn’t be surprised, considering the extent of globalisation in this day and age.
Tesco is branded as Home Plus in Korea, and there you will find almost all the comfort food your heart desires. Just think of it as Tesco in the UK or Ireland, if entire aisles were dedicated to things like soy sauce and noodles. You can buy pesto, cheese, olives, pasta, fajitas, baked beans, Heinz ketchup, Nutella, Haribo, Pringles, Doritos and a whole lot more besides. I even recently saw a very small range of Cadburys chocolate, which is an exciting new development. But, alas, no Crunchies yet. There’s also plenty of Hershey’s and Reese’s chocolate for homesick Americans.**
- Some of the familiar products you can find at Home Plus: breakfast cereals, Tesco Finest products, tinned vegetables, tinned fruit, Pringles and ice-cream. Busan or Ballyfermot?
- Fellow chocolate lovers, rejoice! Korea has ample opportunities for you to ruin your diet. Here you can see Lindt, Kinder, Ferrero Rocher, Merci, Toblerone, Werther’s, Thorntons, M&Ms, Reese’s, Hershey’s and much more.
However, Home Plus is a little expensive and the foreign foods especially so (if you want to eat cheese regularly you better do some overtime). I usually buy day-to-day things in the Korean traditional markets and supermarkets, and just go to Home Plus when I feel like a taste of home. Try to eat like a Korean person most of the time. Your wallet will thank you and you’ll feel good for buying local and not giving too much of your money to massive conglomerates.
I’m veering off the point. The moral of the story is don’t stuff you suitcase with comfort food from home, because you will find most things here. Except for your favourite non-perishables like tea and Tayto or King crisps, of course.
I’ve seen a lot of sources saying it’s impossible to find many herbs and spices Korea – poppycock! Just look at this glorious tower of spices.
- Avoid arousing suspicion at the airport security by buying your oregano in Korea instead of filling your luggage with it!
As for health foods, you probably won’t find everything you need in the shops here. You can bring things from home but most expats just order from iherb. I’ve found them to be very reliable and good value.
Baking supplies are easy to find, though not as easy as in Ireland since baking isn’t very popular here and most people don’t have an oven. I got a very cheap mini-oven (about €25) on Gmarket so I dabble a little.
3. Hygiene and grooming
Some people get very worried about not finding their favourite shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, moisturiser and so on in Korea, so they cram their suitcase full of lotions and potions. Liquids are a real killer when it comes to making your suitcase overweight, and Korean shops have most things you can get in Boots. Trust me when I say you just need to bring a few travel miniatures for your first couple of days, then get the bigger stuff once you get a chance to go shopping.
- Don’t panic, you can still buy all your usual shite! Brands like Nivea, Pantene, Neutrogena and L’oreal are abundant. Don’t forgot to try a few Korean brands too!
Several blogs say that Koreans don’t wear deodorant so it’s almost impossible to find, except at extortionate prices on the black market. This was probably true some years ago, but these days you will find many familiar brands at the pharmacy chains like Olive Young. They are a little bit more expensive than in Ireland but not much.
You can also disregard what you’ve read about sun cream being unavailable in Korea; it’s plentiful. Last summer I even got a free sample from a shop assistant in Olive Young who was concerned about my crimson pigment.
I’m not going to pussyfoot around the the issue of periods, pun fully intended. Most Korean women only use sanitary towels and they are everywhere. You can even inspect display models in the supermarkets. Tampons haven’t really caught on in Korea, but the applicator type are widely available. However I have never seen non-applicator tampons so if you’re used to using them, bring a few boxes over. They’re light so it’s not like you’ll have to pay any tampon-related excess baggage fees.
4. Home and electronics
Most things you need will probably be supplied with your apartment. The rest you can buy cheaply online at Gmarket, at a chain of shops called Daiso, and from the ads on Waygook and Koreabrige. In February and August many EPIK teachers leave and have to get rid of things, so those are good times to pick up things like blenders, mini ovens, clothes horses and so on.
- This is Daiso. You will pop in for some washing up liquid. You will come out with some candles, cute writing paper, origami paper, stickers, Chocopies ‘for the students’, a scarf, a hair band and some lip balm. And no washing-up liquid.
Having said all that, there just a few small things you might want to bring from home.
Don’t forget your adapter. You don’t need to spend money on a fancy worldwide one – Korea has the same sockets as mainland Europe, so a cheap UK to Europe one will have all your three-pronged plugs ready for their Korean adventure.
The teaspoons sold in Korea are really small and I haven’t seen egg cups at all. If, like me, you’re very particular about eating your boiled egg from an egg cup with a normal sized teaspoon, bring those with you.
5. Bedding and towels
Even though a few things are a bit tricker to find than others, you can get anything you need in Ikea, which just opened in Seoul last month.
You may have read that Koreans place a thin quilted blanket on their mattress instead of using bedsheets, so they aren’t sold here. My bed actually came with both, but even if you’re not so lucky you can easily find fitted sheets here.
Duvets with separate covers are a bit more difficult to find, as people generally use fluffy quilts instead. Your apartment will probably be supplied with a quilt, but if you really can’t live without a normal duvet you could buy one in Ikea. I just use the quilt on its own and this is only a problem when I wash it, as the whole thing has to go into the machine. I just make sure to wash it in the morning and give it a good spin, and it’s normally dry by the time I go to bed. If you want to use your quilt but don’t want to wash the whole thing every time, you you could buy a duvet cover in Ikea or have one sent from home once you know the size of your quilt.
I’ve heard it said that Korean pillows are very hard so if you like soft or feather pillows, you should bring them from home. My bed came with a perfectly soft pillow, though I know friends who were supplied with hard ones. Either way, it doesn’t matter – you can buy soft polyester filled pillows and feather pillows in the big marts as well as Ikea, so there’s no need to waste all that space in your suitcase.
Most towels sold in Korea are hand towels but, contrary to what you might have read, bigger bath towels are easy to find too. If you’re coming with EPIK you will most likely get a big towel for free at orientation.
- Bath towels, fitted sheets galore, fluffy quilts that Koreans use instead of duvets with separate covers, pillows of all varieties.
6. Stationary and art supplies
Don’t bother bringing these things from home! Korea has excellent shops selling art supplies and stationary, including my favourite shop that has its own resident grumpy cat. You will also find a huge array of cheap and beautiful notebooks, cards and writing paper. Also do you think stickers are for kids? Wait until you experience the wonderful world of Korean stickers!
The only thing I would advise bringing is Blu-Tack and/or White-Tack. It isn’t available anywhere in Korea and it’s a pretty essential item for the classroom. Any time someone is sending a package from home and asks if I want them to throw anything else in, the answer is always ‘Blu-Tack!’
7. CDs, DVDs and Books
CDs and DVDs are definitely harder to come by in Korea than in Ireland. Some bookshops include a small CD and DVD section, including the Hottracks chain. When you’re living abroad it’s anyway best to come with as little as possible and not amass too much, so it just makes sense to download and stream if you don’t already. At the very least, leave all the boxes at home and bring your CDs and DVDs in a compact case.
Books are a lot easier to find, so just bring something to read on the plane. In the big cities there are plenty of great bookshops with English sections (though books in English are a little more expensive) and space to sit down and have a read. You can also have new and secondhand books delivered from expat owned What the Book. If you’re the kind of person who can read a book and then let it go, then you could stay old school and just pass the books on or swap with other people when you’re finished. If, like me, you like to highlight bits and come back to them later, it’s probably better to use an E-reader rather then spending a fortune shipping books home when your time in Korea is up.
8. Teaching materials
Learning a language becomes a lot more interesting when you can get away from the textbook and use genuine materials. You don’t need to spend any money, just pick up some tourism brochures, business cards, take-away menus and the like before you come to Korea.
Last but not least, it’s very important to bring some kind of gift on your first day of work, and in my opinion it’s more special if you bring it from home rather than getting it in Korea. I brought a few silver Celtic design book marks to give to my co-teachers, as well as some Butler’s chocolates to share with the rest of the staff. I also brought a few nice Irish postcards, pens, notebooks, key-rings, mini calendars, phone charms and so on, to uses as prizes in school and to give to new friends. If you’re coming from Ireland, definitely pay a visit to O’Carrolls before you come.
This has been a long one, so I really hope it’s useful for some people.
Just try to be honest with yourself about what you genuinely need to bring. I remember seeing people at orientation struggling with suitcase upon suitcase and wondering what they were bringing that they couldn’t just buy here and then sell on to someone else before leaving Korea. Packing is also a good opportunity to go through all your stuff and bring the things you don’t need anymore to the charity shop.
It’s also important not to let the packing stress you out. Focus on enjoying those last few weeks at home with your family and friends and remember that they’ll be happy to send over anything you forgot. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t forget the two most important things to bring to Korea: a positive attitude and an open mind (I couldn’t resist)!
I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible but I’m sure there are things I have left out. If you have any questions just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer you! The same goes if you live in Korea and have noticed I’ve omitted anything or made any mistake.
*Desk-warming is a phenomenon in Korean public schools where you have to come in and sit on your arse during the holidays even though there’s no students and nothing to do. This is to avoid the scandal of ending up with more holidays than stated in your contract.
**If you are reading this as a person looking to send a care package to a friend or family member in Korea, please ignore that paragraph and all the pictures of chocolate. Korea actually has no crisps, sweets or chocolate at all, that’s why Koreans are so skinny. Send treats immediately.